The iPad…Why Teachers Should Care

OK, I don’t like the name (iTablet or iSlate are much cooler sounding) but I think the iPad bashers have got it wrong and that this new device has the potential to change education.  While many journalists are complaining about the $499 price tag, I keep thinking wow, only $499, that’s half the price of laptops!

Reasonable Expectations/ Reasonable Price Tag

First, you need to understand that the iPad is not a laptop.  You will need a traditional laptop if you want all the functionality of a laptop.  The iPad is a cross between an iPod touch and a laptop lite.  The iPad is sufficient for 90% of classrooms who need a computer only to do word processing and internet browsing.  In a perfect world, classrooms will still have at least one MacBook or iMac somewhere in the room but at $499 you can put more Apple computers in the hands of students at the half the price of what it would have cost you yesterday (the entry level iBook is about $999).

Advantages In Addition to Cost

1.  Battery life is much longer than existing laptops and more akin to the iPod battery life.

2.  Many of the shortcomings that analysts point to in terms of lack of complexity in the operating system are advantages in the classroom.  Unlike a traditional computer, the iPad should require very little setup, troubleshooting, maintenance.  Like your iPhone, the iPad should just run.  In classrooms without tech support, this is fantastic.

3.  Tactile computing.   Students now just touch need to touch the screen to select what they want.  This is intuitive and satisfying.  It would be as easy to touch an English Language Learner or my grandmother as it would be to teach a computer scientist.

The Future

There are some features missing that are already on my iPad wishlist.  This is a typical 1.0 version of the iPad.  Remember when the iPhone came out it didn’t have third party apps, voice activation, or turn by turn navigation.  I didn’t get an iPhone until version 3.  I’m not really an early adopter.  I personally would wait for future versions of the iPad before jumping in.  However, if you’re ready, none of the missing features are a deal breaker for the classroom.

No camera?  Does every student need a camera at his/her desk?  Would every student be videoconferencing simultaneously?

No multi-tasking?  Do students really work on two assignments at once?  Applications like Safari do save your place when you switch out of them and then come back for purposes of research.  People who have never used the iPhone don’t understand how you can live without multi-tasking, but trust me, you can.

No 16X9.  This is a bummer if your watching a lot of high def movies but in the classroom, who cares?

No Adobe flash when visiting web sites.  This is too bad but there’s no Flash on the iPhone and it hasn’t really bothered me.  I suspect it’s coming to Apple’s mobile devices if you can be patient.  Most sites will run fine without Flash.

If you need any of those things then you still have the option of getting a laptop.  Again, temper your expectations, this is a netbook and not a full-fledged computer.

If money and lack of tech support have been holding your school back from adopting technology.  This is a great first step in a positive direction.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of the new iPad and its potential in your classroom?

Finding Classroom Balance During the Holidays

I write this post at the risk of being nicknamed Scrooge.  Let me preface this by saying that in my classroom, I have always bought the kids presents which they unwrap after lunch on the last day of school before the winter break.  Every year there is one student who tells me something like the art supplies I gave her, “were just what she wanted” or that “this is the only present I’ll get this year.”  I like bringing a little magic to school and building good memories with my class.

Some years I have had a party in addition to the gift giving but I got discouraged after buying the students pizza and having them tell me that they were serving pizza in the cafeteria that day.  It was much more fun and healthy to go out to P.E. and burn off some energy after gift giving than to hype up on sugar.  I still would get requests for parties or hear that “Ms. So and So is having a party, why aren’t we?”  However, I just point out all the things we’re doing that Ms. So and So’s class never does.  You have to resist that kind of student guilt because it can easily extend to logic like “Ms. So and So’s class doesn’t have to face forward in the auditorium, why do we have to?”

At schools I’ve worked at we’ve always had holiday performances and these do take time away from regular class work.  However, I’ve always felt that the act of practicing for our performances and the experience of being in front of an audience taught things like discipline and perseverance and allowed some  students who were less than stellar in their classwork to shine onstage.  My schedule in those performance weeks is cramped and hurried but when your time management is effective you can incorporate those kinds of extra-curricular events without them being a hassle or taking time away from the core subjects.

In contrast, as early as Monday or Tuesday of this week I’ve seen several classrooms shut down their academics to build gingerbread houses, color pictures of Santa, and make reindeer hats.  And it seems that it’s often the classes who need the instruction most who get it the least…the ELL class, the intervention students, the low-income district.  It’s not a coincidence that more time goes wasted in these schools.  (I refer you to my favorite blog post ever, Why Can’t Inner City Kids Learn, by City Teacher for more).

I realize that when working with disadvantaged students we want to give them more…more love, more happiness, more good things.  But I would suggest that giving a student confidence by nurturing a strong reader is longer lasting happiness than a sugar high.  I would also suggest that there’s a certain amount of laziness on the part of teachers.  I realize building gingerbread houses takes a lot of preparation but certainly there’s a lot less planning involved than an academically rigorous lesson.

I don’t want to take holiday celebrations out of schools, I like the Halloween/Fall Festival Parade as much as the next pagan teacher but I do suggest that coloring turkeys, reindeers, skeletons is a waste of time (to be clear, I see this as often in grades 4 and 5 as I do in kindergarten and first grade).

If you must do this kind of busy work, at the very least can you relegate it to the last hours on the last day of school before the vacation?  Can we stop complaining that we don’t have enough time to fit in things like technology integration, reader’s theater, and student led discussions when we have time for coloring and parties?  Can we avoid giving in to students’ desires for candy and fun?—we’re the adults.

Your thoughts?  Have I gone too far?

An Ideal Language Arts Curriculum

Kevin Hodgson lays out what he considers to be an ideal language arts curriculum.  Please read the entire post.  However, the tenets he puts forth are:

Writing to Learn

Including listening and speaking (as well as reading and writing)

A “Stakes Approach” (Moving from low-stakes like journal writing to high stakes like publishing and performance)

Writing Across the Curriculum

And including technology and multi-media

10 Myths of Writer’s Workshop: Part 3 of 4

Myth #7: Where’s the beef?

I’ve written about this before as well. Focusing on structure before starting to write can lead to bland, generic paragraphs and reduce writing to formula instead of communication. Instead, I recommend just writing and then molding that writing into a structure through revising. By frontloading too much information in the beginning, some students will be overwhelmed and shut down. Let them get their ideas out first.

Myth #8: Revising and Proofreading are the same thing…and students can’t do either.

Many teachers are students are still confused about this. Revising is about ideas and not about mistakes. If there’s an error that impedes meaning then by all means take care of it in the revising but proofreading is the stage that is about conventions and making the writing correct. Students can do both independently with your guidance as long as you are modeling how to do it and not just lecturing about it (see Myth #1).

Myth #9: Students can’t follow prompts.

Students don’t need prompts but sometimes they will have to write to them. They can learn to follow directions if you teach them how to read them and figure out what’s being asked. However, following a prompt is almost a separate skill from writing. The good news is that if you teach students how to write well then learning to write to a prompt is easy. If you do too much at one time then it’s harder for students to learn anything.

Myth #10 We write because the teacher tells us to.

We sometimes do a good job of teaching students that we read for pleasure but we rarely teach students that writing is about authentic communication and that it is sometimes done because someone wants to do it. This is why some students (some of whom eventually become teachers) hate writing. Students need real reasons to write. Let them write a presentation, a letter, a blog and write something that they care to write about.

10 Myths of Writer’s Workshop: Part 2 of 4

Myth #4: Drawing is for babies.

I wrote about this already. Drawing is a valid form of prewriting and writing (see cave paintings). By allowing students to transition from drawings to labels and then sentences, you make writing relevant. Bringing visuals into the writing process also sparks imagination and allows non-writers and English Language Learners to participate in the process

Myth #5 Good writers don’t change their minds.

I have several blog entries that have never seen the light of day. I have a box of unfinished scripts. And most of my finished pieces have gone through tons of different iterations before being published. However, in many classrooms, whatever students start writing on Monday, they must take through the entire writing process. By having a publishing deadlines and not requiring students to move at the same pace within that structure, changing your mind is part of the process. Students can go back to their brainstorming list at any time and choose another idea (again, as long as they publish by the deadline).

Myth #6 Stories need a (traditional) beginning, middle, and end.

We were all taught that stories need a beginning, middle, and end but teaching that students often leads to a laundry list type of writing. Take for example, a story about visiting Raging Waters.

I went to Raging Waters with my mom. We parked the car. We bought tickets. We ate a hot dog. We rode many rides. We had fun. We were tired. We went home. I played video games with my cousin. He slept over. The next day he went home.

What is this story about? There are several possible stories in this piece of writing and few details. How about focusing on a small moment instead. How about focusing on just one ride and really noticing sensory details of the experience.

I could smell sunscreen all around me and heard the sound of ladies screaming as they rode down the slide. There were butterflies in my stomach as I climbed the steps of The Terror waiting my turn to slide down the one thousand foot drop…

Sometimes you have to just start writing and find the structure within what you’re writing. As per Lucy Calkins, it’s easier to revise a smaller, focused piece of writing then a long string of ideas.

10 Myths of Writer’s Workshop: Part 1 of 4

Before teaching a writing lesson, I introduce myself to students as a writer. I tell students that I like to write. I tell them I write outside of school just because I want to. (Insert audible gasps here).

Since I have a sense of myself as a writer in the “real world” it bothers me that the way we teach writing is often artificial and bares little resemblance to real writing. Here are my problems with writing instruction, spelled out with ten myths. This is a three part series.

Myth #1: Students can write without modeling.

Without showing students how you write, they have no guidance as to how it can be done. In order to do this, teachers must be writers themselves. You don’t have to be Shakespeare but you do have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and actually participate in the writing process in front of or along with your students. If students don’t see you writing, it’s hard to believe that real people write.

Myth #2: Writers write at the same pace.

Instead of everyone revising on the same day, my students and I set deadlines for pieces to be published. Within XX amount of weeks, students may spend multiple days on the same stage of the writing process as long as everyone meets a deadline set by the class. In other words, a student might spend three days on drafting and half a day on revising but not everyone has to be working on the same stage at the same time. As we get closer to the publishing deadline, students need to commit to one of their drafts and publish.

Myth #3: Students can’t come up with their own writing ideas. They need prompts.

I used to be afraid that my students couldn’t come up with their own ideas. They can. And they do. It’s teachers who often can’t come up with their own ideas. If you model how to come up with ideas, students can do the same. A lot of times their ideas are more interesting than what they did last summer. Give them a chance.

A Curriculum for Working with English Language Learners

While I worked at Saturn Street School, I had the pleasure of being involved with a grant with Antioch University that revolved around assisting English Language Learners. Teachers in the grant chose areas of their practice to research via inquiry projects that examined both quantitative and qualitative student data and aligned with best practices in teaching English Language Learners. We presented our work at a national conference in Washington D.C. last year.

Last month, as a culmination of the work we did through the grant, Antioch University released a free curriculum for working with English Language Learners. Included are strategies and resources, a complete guide for K-8 Schools, as well as general information about our work.  However, the true power of the process was that teachers chose their own topics for study.  Rather than assigning a “research based” curriculum to teachers, teachers planned their own lessons but then did the research to refine and enhance their practice.  The lessons learned about the process of providing similar constructivist professional development are included on the web site as well.

The publication of these materials marks the end of years of hard work.  The hope is that they can be of use to others.  Please download and share.

TLC Grant Web Site

Create Your Own Campaign Ad

Now your students have a chance to create their own campaign ad for their presidential bid thanks to the National Constitution Center.  Due to the tongue in cheek nature of the campaign commercial that results this is probably most appropriate for older students like fifth grade to middle school.

Visit Ad-o-Matic here.

Students take a picture of themselves or upload a photo, choose a party, pick issues that are important to them and then the site does the rest. It does not let you choose your policy. In other words, I say I care about the environment and the site says I want to install air fresheners in buildings.

Mac users may need to fine-tune the settings to get their built in iSight camera to be recognized but otherwise this was really easy to make.  To get past the novelty and result in some real learning, you’ll need to discuss the issues in greater depth.

Here’s the commercial I created…

Teaching Parts of Speech

Here’s an engaging activity for teaching parts of speech through song.  This is particularly useful for English Language Learners.

Post a large piece of butcher paper and have multiple colored markers available.

Prompt students for a list of adjectives which you list on a color coded chart.  Do the same for nouns, verbs, and prepositional phrases.

You then have students choose three adjectives and one of each of the other parts of speech.  You then sing across the chart to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell.”

Sample chart.  Image from Husby’s habitat,

Completed chart, image from my classroom.


For example…”The green, hairy, monsters, the green, hairy monsters, the green, hairy, funny monsters stomp through the forest.”

This works well as a sponge activity before or after recess/lunch.  I leave the chart up and refer back to it.  When we need a verb, for example, I might say, “Remember, action words…the green ones on our chart?”

You can repeat this activity when starting a new unit as a way of getting student familiar with the new vocabulary for each theme.  I don’t require that they use fossil vocabulary, for example, when on the fossil unit but some of it naturally creeps in and makes its way to the chart.

The idea for the “Farmer in the Dell” chart was taught through Project GLAD but I’ve seen it elsewhere as well.  I’m not sure they created the idea.  It was first taught to me by my mom.